RIYADH — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, his first stop in a Middle East tour as Washington tries to advance negotiations on a normalization deal between the kingdom and Israel, and make progress on talks for postwar Gaza governance.
The top US diplomat’s fifth trip to the region since Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack comes at a perilous moment and amid retaliatory US strikes on Iran-backed militia across Syria, Iraq and Yemen in response to a drone strike last week in Jordan that killed three American troops and wounded dozens.
Blinken is also set to visit Egypt, Qatar and Israel this week and push to advance the Egyptian- and Qatari-mediated conversations with Hamas to achieve a hostage deal.
In Riyadh, Blinken met with the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and his Saudi counterpart, foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, a US official said.
The veteran diplomat’s latest trip comes at a time senior US officials describe as one of the most dangerous the region has seen in decades. The conflict has escalated as Iran-backed groups have entered the fray and fired on US forces in Iraq and Syria, while Yemen’s Houthis have attacked shipping routes in the Red Sea.
Blinken will nevertheless try to reinforce the message that the Biden administration neither seeks war with Iran nor wants the conflict to spread further.
A key priority is for the secretary to “deliver a message directly to countries in the region that the United States does not want to see the conflict escalate and will not escalate the conflict,” according to a senior US official briefing reporters en route to Riyadh. “It’s important to show up and say it one-on-one.”
Iran has so far avoided any direct role in the conflict, even as it backs those militia groups. The Biden administration has openly said it does not want war with Iran, despite criticism from Republicans in Congress, some of whom have advocated for attacks inside Iran. The Pentagon also said it does not believe Tehran wants war either.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday refused to be drawn on whether the United States might attack sites inside Iran. He said Washington did not see a wider war, but would continue to respond if attacked.
There is no reason for the US campaign of retaliation, unfolding since Friday, to derail Washington’s conversations with Arab states and Israel on normalization and post-war Gaza, a senior US official said.
More than 130 hostages are still in Gaza, and their possible release by Hamas is among issues under discussion in the conversations that are mediated by Qatar and Egypt with the backing of the United States, in return for a humanitarian pause. While officials have noted some progress, they cautioned that gaps remain.
The hostage deal and the humanitarian pause are now seen as instrumental in helping advance conversations on a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which had been frozen in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7 but resumed in recent weeks.
Speaking in Davos last month, Blinken said there was “a new equation” in the Middle East in which Israel’s Arab and Muslim neighbors were prepared to integrate Israel into the region but they needed to see a pathway to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Conversations on who would govern Gaza after the war, how the Palestinian Authority needs to be reformed to potentially rule the enclave and obtaining security guarantees for Israel are now moving parts of the same equation, the US official said, adding that achieving results would require compromises from Israelis and Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been at odds with the Biden administration over the creation of an independent Palestinian state, saying he would not compromise on “full Israeli security control of all territory west of the Jordan River.” The talks are at a sensitive phase and any progress won’t come easy, the US official added. — Reuters